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Stern puts the ball in Clips' court

At this point, there probably aren't many diehards around who care. A lot of the young people who actually follow the league don't even get the connection. But Buffalo's old NBA team is finally relevant again.

I'm talking, of course, about the Los Angeles Clippers.

Thanks to some meddling by commissioner David Stern, the Clippers are the talk of the country. Stern, acting as surrogate owner of the New Orleans Hornets, blocked a trade that would have sent star point guard Chris Paul to the Lakers. Then the Hornets turned around and dealt Paul to the Clippers.

The Lakers and their fans aren't thrilled with the transaction. Blocking the original deal was a brazen act by Stern, who tarnished his legacy and dramatically altered the balance of power in the Western Conference.

But it's great for the Clippers, who have been the most laughable franchise in sports since leaving Buffalo for San Diego in 1978. The Clippers didn't make the playoffs for 13 years after leaving. They have exactly ONE playoff series win in 34 seasons (in 2006).

Buffalo hoop lovers, spurned by the Braves' departure, like to think there's a curse on the franchise. The real problem, of course, was Donald Sterling, a cheap and small-minded owner. But as Bills fans know, every owner stumbles upon good fortune if he hangs around long enough.

The Clippers drafted Blake Griffin, an amazing athlete who was rookie of the year last season. Now they have Paul, widely considered the game's best point guard. They have a solid supporting cast. The Clippers signed Caron Butler, a veteran forward, and guard Chauncey Billups, a former NBA Finals MVP.

Suddenly, they matter. "For the first time, I am going to be watching Clippers games," said former Laker great Magic Johnson. They open the regular season on Christmas night, the last of five national TV games on the league's belated opening day. Eastern diehards will stay up for the 10:30 start.

On a national conference call last week, Charles Barkley said, "There's a legitimate question now who is the best team in L.A."

Giddy Clipper fans believe their team can be the best one in the league. On Monday, Paul made his debut in an 114-95 exhibition win over the Lakers. It was the most watched preseason game in NBA history. Half a million fans tuned in to see Paul go for 17 points, nine assists, seven rebounds and five steals.

Every Clippers game has sold out in the Staples Center, which they share with the Lakers. Their co-tenants, who have won 10 NBA titles since the Clippers came West, can't say the same. They're troubled, weakened by age, the retirement of coach Phil Jackson, and Stern's scuttling of the Paul trade.

Lamar "Mr. Kardashian" Odom was insulted when the Lakers tried to include him in the trade. He asked to be moved and the Lakers obliged, more or less giving him away to the defending champion Mavs. Pau Gasol, their star big man, was taken aback to hear he had been trade bait.

Kobe Bryant is entering his 16th season. He's angry with the league, upset at Odom's departure. His wife, Vanessa, has filed for divorce. Bryant is still a great player and fierce competitor, but he'll be under pressure in the compacted NBA schedule. His body is wearing down. His supporting cast is weak.

Bryant seems amused by the talk of a new rivalry in L.A. It remains to be seen whether the Clipper hype is warranted. It's hard to feel sorry for the Lakers. The Clippers have been looking up to them since the Braves left town. It's about time the franchise caught a break. Really, how could Darell Garretson call that foul on McAdoo against Jo Jo White?


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